When kids hit their teens, family camping trips become a tougher sell. Especially weekend outings to nearby campgrounds. If you’re not bringing their friends along or meeting some at the destination, the fun of just being at a campground is no longer going to cut it.
I had this in mind as I began planning our 2023 summer camping schedule. Not only would I find a provincial park or private campground we’ve never been to before, but I’d find ones near an attraction the kids might find interesting.
What attraction brought us to Mount Fernie Provincial Park for the Labour Day Weekend, you ask? Well, none other than the 49th Annual Fernie Lions Demolition Derby. Even if the kids didn’t like this (they did), it would wrap me in a warm blanket of nostalgia from my childhood summers.
LOCATION OF MOUNT FERNIE PROVINCIAL PARK
Fernie is a former coal mining hub turned all-season resort town in southeast British Columbia, approximately three hours from Calgary by car. It’s popular for its world class ski hill in the winter, and it’s massive network of hiking and mountain biking trails in the summer. Toss in a healthy helping of other outdoor activities and a rejuvenating downtown, and it’s not hard to see why Fernie is so popular with fitness-minded folks.
Mount Fernie Provincial Park is located 2 km west of Highway 3 at the south end of town. The road to Island Lake Lodge passes right through the provincial park. The proximity to town makes the park a perfect place to stay if you’re enjoying Fernie’s attractions.
MOUNT FERNIE PROVINCIAL PARK SETTING
The park is not terribly large at roughly 1 mile x 1 mile (obviously created in pre-metric times). Stuck almost randomly in the forested Lizard Creek valley, the park is covered with cedar, spruce, fir, and aspen with a healthy undergrowth as well. It’s what you come to expect when camping at provincial parks in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta and British Columbia. Shade for everyone!
Despite the mountain setting, the campground at Mount Fernie Provincial Park is relatively flat. It’s in a broadening of the valley where Stove Creek meets Lizard Creek and then reaches the much larger basin of the Elk River.
MOUNT FERNIE PROVINCIAL PARK CAMPGROUND
The campground in Mount Fernie Provincial Park is modest in size with only 68 total campsites. They’re arranged around a primary loop that is intersected by the main road that leads into the park and then on up to the Island Lake Lodge.
Each half of the loop is further dissected by another short road. A final cul de sac of 7 sites is found at the far west end of the campground. I have no idea if this was an afterthought or later addition to the campground.
Almost everything in the campground is recently upgraded. Facilities are newly built with lovely wood exteriors and modern interiors. The main loop roads are all paved, and the campsites are freshly leveled with generous amounts of gravel. It’s by far the nicest, newest looking provincial park campground I’ve been to.
CAMPSITES AT MOUNT FERNIE PROVINCIAL PARK
First things, first. As is common with BC Parks of this size, there is not a single serviced campsite at Mount Fernie Provincial Park. No power, no water, no sewer. Nothing. They’re all beautifully treed, unserviced campsites. And all 68 of them are back-ins except for 4 walk-in tent sites.
While there is some variation in depth and width, my impression was that the campground trends toward more modest RVs. That’s not to say the sites are small, they aren’t. They’re quite spacious, in my opinion, with plenty of privacy between them. But for big units, the type Albertans like, there may be a limited supply of sites that can accommodate them.
There are also 9 sets of double campsites; 4 in the north half and 5 in the south half. These are even more spacious in width, so if you are camping with friends, you won’t be tripping all over each other the entire time.
A handful of sites back onto Lizard and Stove Creeks. None of these offer a view of the water. You’re still very much in a forested campsite, but the closeness to the creeks and trails along them may appeal to you.
We were at campsite #33 in the north half right by the main entrance. Being close to the entrance and main road weren’t ideal, but the site was otherwise fantastic. It has plenty of room within and lots of woods surrounding it. We rarely noticed our neighbours the entire long weekend.
Our site, like most others I suspect, was perfectly level. All that new gravel was laid with purpose, and it was great; just park and lower your stabilizers.
WALK-IN TENT SITES
The 4 walk-in tent sites are located in the centre of the campground. Three of them are in a little pod on the north side of the main road. The fourth is all by its lonesome on the south side of the main road. It doesn’t even have neighbours.
On the north half loop road is a paved parking lot for the four walk-in tent sites. This parking lot is very convenient for the three sites nearest it, but for that fourth site, not so much.
I’m really not sure what the thinking is with that fourth site. Such a random placement, and not a particularly appealing one since it’s right beside the main park road.
The tent sites are more dirt than their graveled RV cousins. They still have the monster picnic tables and firepits and all are well-sheltered from the sun. They’re better than having no tent sites at all, but there isn’t much uniqueness to them or their location.
Mount Fernie Provincial Park does not have a designated group camping area, but that oddball, seven-site cul de sac at the west end acts as one.
I don’t even have any good pictures of this little loop because everyone camping in it was utilizing the space as one private campsite. A dozen kids were all playing together around the road with pylons and chalk. The adults were standing around talking over drinks. I felt like I was intruding just by walking through.
The logistics of booking all seven campsites at once must be difficult. If you can pull it off, this little loop makes a nice, semi-isolated group area for you and your comrades.
PICNIC TABLES AND FIREPITS
Each site comes with a firepit and picnic table. This being BC, those picnic tables are immovable behemoths made of concrete with thick wood tops. Each is placed on a concrete pad in the midst of your living space. They’re great for durability, I just wish we could place them where we want them.
The firepits are standard rings with a cutout at the front and half grill on top towards the back. The grills are permanent but manage to leave enough space for bonfire enjoyment and marshmallow roasting.
There are six pit toilets stationed around the campground and day use areas at Mount Fernie Provincial Park. Again, no surprise. That said, these might be the nicest pit toilets I’ve used in ages.
Most of them are brand new with concrete bases, cedar log walls, and plenty of open space at the top and bottom for air circulation. They are spacious, accessible, and all that fresh cedar acts like an air freshener.
I made use of the installation by the entrance which I surmised would get far less use than those within the campground. I think I was right, and the odour was suitably subdued.
The south day use area has an older model pit toilet still standing. Not sure why this one was left untouched. It’s not in bad shape, by any means, but is noticeably different than the new ones everywhere else in the park.
If my sell job on the new cedar pit toilets isn’t working, fear not, there is a fancy new shower house here as well.
The exterior is quite pretty for a bathroom. The timber framing fits with the locale and the paved access makes it easy to get to. A large, stainless steel cleaning station highlights the space between the two front entrances.
Inside are new facilities including a rather bizarre-looking sink. It’s not your typical faucet and basin setup. I genuinely thought it was a changing station at first glance. I’m all for new ideas, but sometimes tried and true is the best option.
I also did a second take to be sure I was in the correct bathroom since there is no urinal. I was worried I’d entered the women’s side, but nope, just a modern bathroom with no place to pee standing up. There are flush toilets, at least, but just one stall. The two remaining stalls are showers, one regular sized and one accessible sized.
I actually had a shower this time, determining I needed a cleansing after our busy day of hiking. They have no temperature control which is unfortunate because whomever set the water heater temperature put it to boiling. Holy smoke, that was hot water! At least it was free, though perhaps not for BC taxpayers.
The push buttons give about 30 seconds of water flow and the prison-style showerhead blasts you with high-pressure streams. All this upgrading and they still employ these antiquated, painful shower fixtures. I guess that’s how they keep shower times to a minimum.
I had to use the accessible shower and while it is delightfully spacious with benches aplenty, the floors can get dirty after several uses. Folks coming from hikes and mountain biking aren’t entering with the cleanest of footwear. The sprayed and pooling water collects the dirt and will have you employing some gymnastics when getting dressed afterwards.
With 68 unserviced, but recently updated campsites and facilities, you would think Mount Fernie Provincial Park would have a shiny, new dump station to boast about. Nope.
The Fernie tourism website says there is one at the Fernie RV Resort in town, but it costs $10 to use. If you’re looking for a free option, the nearest is at the Sparwood Visitor Information Centre 30 km to the east.
With no dump station there is no central RV fill-up station for water either. I have no idea what you can do about this other than to fill your tank at home.
For tenters and water bottle filling, there are several water taps around the campground. They are the twist and hold open type and none have threads to connect a hose to. Your site shouldn’t be too far from one and the water is safe to drink. No signs warning you to boil it first like we encountered on our rockhounding trip earlier in the summer.
A lot of very recent investment has gone into Mount Fernie Provincial Park and yet the campground still does not have a playground. I continue to think this is a huge oversight at so many provincial parks.
Yeah, sure, nature is the playground and it’s everywhere all around but there are times when you’re purposely at your campsite and would love for the kids to have an energy burning distraction. It’s not like there’s a shortage of space. Maybe replace tent site 32 with it?
Or, you could theoretically build a climbing/sliding apparatus near the sprawling campground host site.
This compound of a campsite and service building is located on a short driveway off the north half loop road. Not ideally central to the campground, but there is plenty of room for a playground here.
This is also where you can buy firewood if you haven’t brought your own. The campground has no store or office (a full-service town is literally just down the road), so you will be visited by the host/operator at some point to confirm your registration and get your dose of rules.
According to park pamphlets and notices, firewood costs $10 per bundle.
NOVEL AMENITIES AT MOUNT FERNIE PROVINCIAL PARK
There were two anomalies at this campground that are well worth noting. The first is that there is a shuttle bus stop at the campground’s entrance. This free daytime shuttle runs Wednesday to Sunday (plus holiday Mondays) throughout the summer season. A great way for you to enjoy the town’s offerings without having to drive everywhere.
The other novelty is truly unique; bike washing stations. I can honestly say I’ve never seen one of these anywhere else and I doubt I ever will. A testament to the mountain biking culture of Fernie and the types of campers that come to this park.
There are two in the campground, located by pit toilets near the day use areas. They have a metal stand in a concrete pad surrounding a drain. A garden hose with adjustable nozzle is used to clean your bike. No cost, no funny attachments, just a simple garden hose. All that free water and yet, no RV filling station.
When you’re camping along any of the primary routes through the Rockies, you’re going to be near trains. It’s unavoidable and Mount Fernie Provincial Park was no exception.
Thankfully, they do not appear to run through the night, but the early morning and late evening are fair game. The tracks head right through town and that means train horns. Lots and lots of train horns. At least there is a bit of buffer space between the campground and the tracks which are located on the other side of the Elk River.
Conversely, highway traffic wasn’t readily noticeable. I’m sure a loud logging truck will register now and then, but overall, I didn’t notice much noise from highway 3. The same can be said of the road passing through the campground. It wasn’t void of traffic, but what there was didn’t impact the enjoyment of our stay.
And then there are generators. The campground is entirely unserviced and that means at least one RVer will be bringing a generator. Again, no exceptions here. Even with the decidedly nature-nut skewing of the clientele, there were still generators disrupting the atmosphere at times.
Otherwise, the campground was delightfully peaceful. We were there for the final long weekend of the year, there was a demolition derby and a competitive biking competition in town, but the evenings were quiet and enjoyable the entire time. Even with a lengthy fire ban being lifted just that weekend, no parties erupted.
DAY USE AREAS
Mount Fernie Provincial Park has two day use areas denoted by large, gravel parking lots. One is at the southeast end of the campground and is accessed by a dedicated road that starts at the park entrance. The other is at the northwest end of the campground by that segregated 7 site camping loop.
Both these day use areas have some picnic spots but that is not their primary purpose. They are essentially parking lots for trail access. There are some wooden picnic tables in the woods next to the lots if you want to picnic or have a rest, but mostly people just park here and disappear into the trail network.
MOUNT FERNIE PROVINCIAL PARK TRAILS
Make no mistake, the primary reason to camp at Mount Fernie Provincial Park is to mountain bike or hike. There are trails literally everywhere. They’re in the campground, in the park, around the park, and all the way to town and then some. It’s really quite remarkable when you see a map of it all. Signage is everywhere.
The trail network within the campground is modest and practical. A trail parallels the main road from the entrance to the far west end of the loop road. Another scoots from the campground host access road, crosses Stove Creek and enters the base of the seven site loop. These trails tend to be wide, manicured trails of mostly gravel.
Another set of trails runs around the south end of the campground between the sites and Lizard Creek. There are four offshoots connecting to the loop road for campers to access. This dirt trail which has a series of educational placards along its path, runs from the southeast day use lot to the northwest day use lot.
At the south end, there’s a viewpoint with bench and a very small waterfall on Lizard Creek. Okay, it’s a rapid. Still quaint enough to photograph and play with the rocks nearby.
This trail network then connects to a much larger system that spiderwebs throughout the park and then the mountainsides all around Fernie. There are easy trails, hard trails, and everything in between trails. So many, in fact, you could spend several summers exploring a new one each visit.
FAIRY CREEK FALLS
We hiked two trails on the Saturday of our long weekend in Fernie. The first was a 2.5 km hike to Fairy Creek Falls.
This hike starts at the Fernie Visitor Infocentre at the north end of town on highway 3. It’s described as an easy hike, which it is, aside from some elevation gain and switchbacks near the start. The trickiest portion is right before the falls themselves where the trail crosses a tiny brook spilling over an outcropping of rock.
The trail is dirt with some roots and rocks and the odd boardwalk along the way. It intermingles with other trails, but signage is decent and will keep you headed in the right direction. Most of the time you’ll be in the forest with little to see beyond your immediate surroundings.
It’s a popular trail due to its ease of access and relatively short duration. Well, that and the waterfall is pretty too. Expect to pass plenty of folks in both directions, some with children in tow, others with dogs. Some have both.
The infocentre is worth checking out too. Along with information about Fernie, there are animals on display, souvenirs, and plenty of maps and pamphlets for attractions all across southern BC. Oh, and washrooms too.
Our second hike of the day was the one I was most eager to do. I’ve been wanting to see Fernie’s giant ammonite for years and I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity with us camping so close.
The trail to the ammonite fossil is not an official one. You won’t find it on many trail maps, and even if the fossil’s location is denoted, there isn’t much information on how to get to it. We used the AllTrails website on which knowledgeable hikers have posted some reliable directions.
There are, in fact, different paths to the ammonite. We met a father and daughter team at the endpoint who had arrived from an entirely different direction. They even returned using a third route. None of these are especially easy, and judging by their reactions when we crossed paths, their approach had been very difficult.
We chose the better documented trail starting from Coal Creek Road east of town. This is a rough, gravel road that was severely damaged by flooding a decade ago. Prior to getting to the trailhead, you will reach a ditch that crosses the entire road. You need to cross this to get to the true trailhead.
That is near the washed-out bridge. You can’t miss it. I mean, you could miss it, but you’ll be in the river if you do. Park in the open space to the side of this bridge. There will likely be other cars present so just follow their lead.
Next, you’ll need to find a way over the river which will be tricky. Later in the season when water flow is low, you should be able to find a path hopping across exposed boulders. You still might get a bit wet if you’re not careful, but there is no other option. Earlier in the season, well, good luck to you.
Once across the river, follow the road north, away from the damaged bridge. A couple hundred metres along you will see an old, partially overgrown road heading into the woods on your right. One like a tractor would use. That is the trailhead and your adventure starts from there.
Finding this trailhead seems to be the most difficult part of the instructions shared on AllTrails. Once you get that right, the rest is straightforward though not necessarily easy.
The trail alternates from dirt to rock and back, and from within forest to out in the open (some nice views from these). You cross a couple creeks (one was dry by September) and gain elevation much of the way though not steeply. It really wasn’t all that much more difficult than the Fairy Creek Falls trail in my opinion. Until the end, that is.
The last segment of the hike requires you to scale a short, dirt cliff using a rope down into a rocky, outcropped creek bed. You then must scramble up the creek bed for a hundred metres or so until the valley makes a ninety degree turn to your right. At that turn, up on the outcrop to your right, is the giant ammonite.
It’s well worth the effort if you’re at all interested in fossils and geology, but I have to admit I thought it would be bigger. It’s described as a tractor tire, which I guess it kind of looks like, but any tractor tires I’ve seen are far larger than this.
Nonetheless, it’s easily the biggest ammonite fossil I’ve ever seen by many orders of magnitude. And you’ll find wee little ones in the outcrops of the creek bedto prove just how magnificent this thing truly is. So glad I finally got to see it in person.
FERNIE LIONS DEMOLITION DERBY
Sunday, though, was the real reason we came to Fernie on Labour Day. It was demolition derby day, and I was jacked to see one again. It’s been thirty-five plus years since I last witnessed a demolition derby at Sauble Speedway in Sauble Beach, Ontario. They were highlights of my childhood and I hoped my kids would find this one just as memorable.
The annual event for nearly half a century now, occurs in a grass field on the northwest end of town. It’s literally on the other side of the tracks.
You find parking and then walk out to the derby site which is a dirt ring enclosed by those giant, concrete Lego block barricades. Around those is a series of bleacher seating and a pressbox. A small snack shack operates during the big event selling chips, pop, and burgers. A beer garden is next to it if you prefer your demolition with a side of drunkenness.
The demolition derbies I went to as a kid were fairly simple. A whole bunch a big ole cars went out there and smashed into each other until 1 remained functioning. Easy peasy and riots of fun. I wanted so much to enter my parents’ station wagon, a 1974 Pontiac Catalina. A surefire winner, in my ten year old mind.
Today’s derbies are more complex, with multiple heats and vehicle categories. There are also fewer cars, I’m sad to say. Those big ass boats of the 70s and 80s don’t get made anymore and supply for these types of events continues to dwindle.
This is where the different divisions come it. In addition to the traditional big car group, there was a pickup truck group and a small car group (also a powder puff group … yes … they still use that name). All of these were arguably more enjoyable than the big cars. Those guys in the small car event were completely bonkers. Who in their right mind intentionally crashes into others in a four-cylinder compact?
I think it’s safe to say all four of us enjoyed the event. It was a bit longer than we anticipated … some of the pauses between heats dragged on … and the overcast skies and brisk wind were colder than we’d dressed for.
I’d also expected more food selection at the event, like food trucks and such. All they had was Lions club fundraising grub and it wasn’t too appealing. Not even French fries, for heaven sake. Seriously?
Otherwise, it was a great time and I’m glad we went. Who knows, we may even return next year? I imagine a 50th anniversary warrants something extra special.
MY RATING OF MOUNT FERNIE PROVINCIAL PARK
I will admit there were some reservations in our household about even going camping this past Labour Day. We had recently returned from an amazing, but exhausting, trip back home to Ontario. School had also started, and the kids were not in good spirits because of it. But my wife, who had been unable to attend a camping trip the week prior, really wanted to go and so we did.
Boy, am I glad she didn’t capitulate. Not only did we have a great weekend exploring Fernie, a place I’d spent very little time in, but our campground choice proved to be one of the best we’ve ever been to. So, I’m giving Mount Fernie Provincial Park 4.75 out of 5 Baby Dill Pickles.
Maybe I’ve got some post-demolition derby and post-giant ammonite glow going on, but I really liked this campground. It’s amazing what some investment can do to a public place. It was such a pleasure camping there. And I’m saying that in spite of me using pit toilets most of the weekend and there being generators in use!
I’m perplexed at the lack of urinals and the single toilet in the shower house. The missing dump station and absent playground are also negatives but not deal killers. That trail network is fantastic and Fernie is a cool town.
I can absolutely envision myself going back to both Fernie and its lovely provincial park. I encourage you to go there too. Perhaps next Labour Day? We can enjoy some metal crunching together.